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The South Asian Insider

‘Sitting on a powder keg’: US braces for a year, and an election, like no other

The 60th US presidential election, which will unfold in 2024, will be quite unlike any that has gone before as the US, and the rest of the world, braces for a contest amid fears of eroding democracy and the looming threat of authoritarianism.
It will be a fight marked by numerous unwanted firsts as the oldest president in the country’s history is likely to face the first former US president to stand trial on criminal charges. A once aspirational nation will continue its plunge into anxiety and divisions about crime, immigration, race, foreign wars and the cost of living.Democrat Joe Biden, 81, is preparing for the kind of gruelling campaign he was able to avoid during coronavirus lockdowns in 2020. Republican Donald Trump will spend some of his campaign in a courtroom and has vowed authoritarian-style retribution if he wins. For voters it is a time of stark choices, unique spectacles and simmering danger.“It feels to me as if America is sitting on a powder keg and the fuse has been lit,” said Larry Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “The protective shield that all democracies and social orders rely on – legitimacy of the governing body, some level of elite responsibility, the willingness of citizens to view their neighbors in a civic way – is in an advanced stage of decline or collapse.
“It’s quite possible that the powder keg that America’s sitting on will explode over the course of 2024.”
US politics entered a new, turbulent era with Trump’s shocking victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. The businessman and reality TV star, tapping into populist rage against the establishment, was the first president with no prior political or military experience. His chaotic four-year presidency was scarred by the Covid-19 pandemic and ended with a bitter defeat by Biden in a 2020 election that was itself billed as an unprecedented stress test of democracy.
Trump never accepted the result and his attempts to overturn it culminated in a deadly riot at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, and his second impeachment. He has spent three years plotting revenge and describes the 5 November election as “the final battle”. But he is running for president under the shadow of 91 criminal charges in four jurisdictions, knowing that regaining the White House might be his best hope of avoiding prison – a calculus that could make him and his supporters more desperate and volatile than ever.Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington, said: “This is the most astounding election I have ever seen.
“We have never had an election where a likely major party nominee is indicted for major felony charges of the most serious nature; this is not shoplifting. He’s being charged with an attempt to destroy our democracy and subverting our national security. Both in terms of Trump’s personal morality and his incredibly serious crimes, we have never seen anything remotely like this.”
First Trump must win the Republican primary against Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, putting the electoral and legal calendars on a collision course. On 16 January, a day after the Iowa caucuses kick off the Republican nomination process, Trump faces a defamation trial brought by the writer E Jean Carroll, who has already won a $5m judgment against him after a jury found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation.
On 4 March, Trump is due in court in Washington in a federal case accusing him of plotting to overturn the 2020 election result. The following day is Super Tuesday, when more than 15 states are scheduled to hold Republican primaries, the biggest delegate haul of the campaign.
On 25 March, Trump also faces state charges in New York over hush-money payments to an adult film star, although the judge has acknowledged he may postpone that because of the federal trial. On 5 August, prosecutors have asked to start an election fraud trial in Georgia, less than three weeks after Trump is likely to have been nominated by the Republican national convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Trump is hard at work to flip his legal troubles to his political advantage, contending that he is a victim of a Democratic deep state conspiracy. He frequently tells his supporters: “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you – and I’m just standing in their way.” His Georgia mugshot has been slapped on T-shirts and other merchandise like a lucrative badge of honor.It seems to be working, at least according to a series of opinion polls that show Trump leading Biden in a hypothetical matchup. A survey in early December for the Wall Street Journal newspaper showed Trump ahead by four points, 47% to 43%. When five potential third-party and independent candidates were included, Trump’s lead over Biden expanded to six points, 37% to 31%.
To Democrats, such figures are bewildering. Biden’s defenders point to his record, including the creation of 14m jobs, strong GDP growth and four major legislative victories on coronavirus relief, infrastructure, domestic production of computer chips and the biggest climate action in history. He has also led the western alliance against Russian aggression in Ukraine.Lichtman added: “He gets credit for nothing. It’s just amazing: I’ve never seen a president do so much and get so little mileage on it. He has more domestic accomplishments than any American president since the 1960s. He’s presided over an amazing economic recovery, a far better economy than was under Donald Trump even before the pandemic in terms of jobs, wages, GDP. Inflation has gone down by two-thirds.
“It was Biden who single-handedly put together the coalition of the west that stopped [Vladimir] Putin from quickly overtaking Ukraine. He seems to get no credit for any of this whatsoever and that’s partly his own fault and the fault of the Democratic party. The Democratic party has been horrible for some time now – at least 15 years. Republicans are so much better at messaging.”
The president’s approval rating has been stubbornly low since around the time of the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. He is grappling with record numbers of migrants entering the country – an issue that increasingly aggravates states beyond the US-Mexico border. His refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza is costing him some support among progressives and young people.
The latest Democratic messaging salvo – “Bidenomics” – appears to have been a flop at a moment when many voters blame him for rising prices and a cost-of-living crisis. For all the barrage of positive economic data, Americans are lacking the feelgood factor.
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, said: “People feel that Biden overpromised and underdelivered and ultimately what it came down to was he didn’t make me feel good while he did it and he didn’t make it look easy.”Biden still holds a potential ace in the hole. Democrats plan to make abortion central to the 2024 campaign, with opinion polls showing most Americans do not favor strict limits on reproductive rights. The party is hoping threats to those rights will encourage millions of women and independents to vote their way next year. It is also seeking to put measures enshrining access to abortion in state constitutions on as many ballots as possible.The issue has flummoxed Republicans, with some concerned the party has gone too far with state-level restrictions since the supreme court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling last year, ending constitutional protection for abortion. Trump has taken notice and is conspicuously trying to be vague on the issue.
They must make the contrast between a Biden America and a Trump America and ask people which America do they want to live in
Tara Setmayer
The Wall Street Journal poll found Biden leading Trump on abortion and democracy by double digits. But it gave Trump a double-digit lead on the economy, inflation, crime, border security, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and physical and mental fitness for office. Biden still has time to reshape perceptions but even close allies concede that he is not an inspirational speechmaker like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. How can he turn it around?
Tara Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, said: “My advice would be to be aggressive, go on offence and set the narrative. They must make the contrast between a Biden America and a Trump America and ask people which America do they want to live in.
“A year out, most people are not paying attention so the polls are meaningless in that they are not predictive of what will happen in a year. Where they do have value is what the trend line shows, which is that the American people are not getting the messaging clearly enough now, so it’s time to get up off their asses and activate the campaign at level 10 right now.”
Setmayer, a senior adviser to the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, added: “What Donald Trump is telegraphing, what he plans to do to this country, I don’t fully think most Americans understand.“

Use the power of incumbency, of the bully pulpit, of their record. Biden is surrounded by people who are experienced campaign veterans and so is he. Use it.”Should Trump prevail, numerous critics have warned that his return would hollow out American democracy and presage a drift towards Hungarian-style authoritarianism. In a recent interview on Fox News, Trump was asked: “You are promising America tonight, you would never abuse this power as retribution against anybody?” He did not give an outright denial but replied airily: “Except for day one.”
Should Biden serve a second term, he will be 86 when he leaves office. Dean Phillips, 54, a congressman from Minnesota, mounting a Democratic primary challenge, is calling for a new generation of leadership. Some Democrats privately wish that Biden had declared mission accomplished after the 2022 midterm elections and stepped down to make way for younger contenders such as Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom and Gretchen Whitmer. It now appears too late. If I were a Democratic strategist, I would have been arrested for begging him to accept four years and move on. You can’t fix age
Frank Luntz
Frank Luntz, a prominent consultant and pollster, said: “Democrats should be apoplectic. Donald Trump has been indicted in felony after felony. The economy is relatively OK and yet Biden is sinking every week and it’s because of something that no soundbite and no messaging can fix: his age. If I were a Democratic strategist, I would have been arrested in front of the White House for begging him to accept four years and move on. You can’t fix age.”Biden’s potential for gaffes was limited during the pandemic election; this time he will be expected to travel far and wide, his every misstep amplified by rightwing media. The social media platform X, formerly Twitter, is now owned by Elon Musk and populated by extremists such as Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones. This has also been dubbed the first “AI election”, with deepfakes threatening to accelerate the spread of disinformation – a tempting target for foreign interference.It is unfolding in a febrile atmosphere of conspiracy theories, polarisation, gun violence and surging antisemitism and Islamophobia. Political opponents are increasingly framed as mortal enemies. Violence erupted on January 6 and again last year when a man broke into the home of the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband with a hammer.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, said: “If you have something like the last couple of elections where it’s razor thin, and people who don’t understand the American electoral process see malfeasance and misfeasance where there is none, we have a very non-trivial chance of violence.
“I wouldn’t even presume that we wouldn’t have an outbreak of sporadic violence before that. The fact is when people see each other as the enemy, and talk about each other as the enemy, people who are mentally unbalanced and have access to firearms will do mentally unbalanced things.”
Luntz does not foresee violence.
But nor is he optimistic about the future of a nation torn between hope and fear. “What I do expect is a fraying no longer at the edges but at the heart of American democracy,” he said. “I’m afraid that we are reaching the point of no return. In my conversations with senators and congressmen every day I’m on the Hill – it doesn’t matter which party – we all agree that it’s not coming, it’s here, and no one knows what to do about it.”